Drowned Out by the Tea Party Hype: Progressive Voices

Van Jones at the Facing Race Conference (Brian Palmer)

Ever wonder when progressives will find their voices again?

Well, about 800 gathered in Chicago recently at the Facing Race Conference in Chicago to collaborate and generate ideas for the future at a time when they feel drowned out by conservatives and Tea Partiers.


It is a pivotal moment on the nation's political front. Midterm elections are just weeks away at a time when Democrats are fighting to hang on to House and Senate seats across the nation. It is a struggle that some are calling a referendum on President Barack Obama's first term in office.

Members of the last panel at the conference, called, "Popularizing Racial Justice: Building Clarity, Unity and Strategy to Move Us Forward,'' offered up key ideas to help progressives move forward in the upcoming political battle. The panelists were former White House green czar Van Jones, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; author, activist and educator Tim Wise; Rinku Sen, the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center; and Maria Teresa Kumar, executive director and co-founder of Voto Latino.

The Root brings you highlights of what was said by the panelists (for reasons of space, we were able to include comments from only three of the panelists):

Van Jones on what progressives could have done to keep the Tea Party movement from becoming what it is today:

What I want to suggest is that we look at … not what the bad guys did, but what we did not do in the past two years. On the Wall Street crisis, [progressives] were missing in action. We wound up with a Wall Street reform bill that is all about the next crisis. It's all about putting some speed bumps in the road for the next crisis and nothing about giving relief to people who are still suffering in this crisis.


When the stuff got bad in August 2009, look at the numbers of people who were disrupting and protesting at the town hall meetings on the other side — minuscule. They could send three or four people to scream in a crowd of 200 people and dominate the news cycle. And we failed to respond.

I would suspect [that], at that time, racial-justice forces should have led millions of white people to protest publicly about the kind of racist, divisive things they were saying. There was nothing in the world preventing millions of people of color and millions of white people from standing in front of community places and saying, "Yes, we can." We literally could have crushed this thing in its initial stages. It could have been three days of mobilization.


For some reason, we didn't know how, didn't know we had to. What I would suggest is we're going to get through this tough period. We're going to be here again, primed to govern again with a progressive agenda. And next time, I want us to be very, very clear that it's not just time to win on Election Day. This struggle has to be about winning every single day and every time we campaign.

The great myth about health care is that if we can just somehow close the economic gap for coverage, the racial gap will close. The research shows that [to be] wrong. So our conversation both around race and around nationwide health care has to be about how rising tides don't in fact lift all boats, and how that has never been true in history. Doctors view patients from stereotypical lenses regardless of how progressive they may profess to be outwardly.


There is 15 years of research that shows the bio-cumulative impact of discrimination on [the black and brown body]. The fact that African-American women with college degrees have higher infant-mortality rates than white women who drop out of school after eighth grade [says a lot]. That isn't about coverage. That isn't about occupational status. That is about something else.

That is about race-specific injuries. We have to insist that the race-specific injuries that continue to exist be part of that conversation. I just want to make sure we're connecting the dots between class and race and not assuming that one is the other, because they're not. They're connected, but they're different. 


Rinku Sen on why the fight for racial justice and the struggle for justice for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community are linked:

We just completed the Better Together study, where we surveyed racial-justice organizations about how they deal with LGBT constituencies and issues. I think the first thing that really sucked me in about that study was that there are millions of LGBT people of color in our communities. If you are a racial-justice organization and you claim to support people of color, there are gay people, trans people and lesbians in that community. There are groups that say, well, we're Asian, so we don't work on gay issues. Or we're an economic-justice organization and we don't work on gay issues. Well, gay issues are Asian, economic-[justice] and criminal-justice issues.


The people who are most affected by "Don't ask, don't tell" are black women in the military. Whatever you think about the U.S. military, it is a key economic factor for people of color, and we have to be able to protect their rights. In almost every issue that a racial-justice organization works on — whether it's police brutality, workplace discrimination or housing — I can guarantee that if you really studied it, LGBT people of color are among the most vulnerable people affected by it. It is the job of racial-justice organizations to take care of our people.

Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.

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